By Randy Schultz
July 6, 2016
Martin County made national news in a bad way over the weekend. Toxic algae blooms had closed beaches and fouled inland waterways. A similar outbreak in 2013 led to what residents call “The Lost Summer.” Palm Beach County also briefly closed one beach, and St. Lucie County advised against swimming near the Martin border.
On June 29, Scott declared a state of emergency. For the governor, it also was a political emergency. As happened in 2013, residents wanted answers. Scott had his usual response: It’s the federal government’s fault.
Since Jan. 30, the Army Corps of Engineers has dumped water from Lake Okeechobee through the canal that connects to the St. Lucie River. Record winter rains had raised the lake level to where it threatened the dike around the southern shore.
Scott accused the federal government — translation: President Obama — of failing to finish an upgrade of the dike. As Scott sees it, a stronger dike would allow a higher lake level and mean no dumping of water. Problem — environmental and political — solved.
In fact, the dike is not the main problem. After Katrina, the corps might not allow higher levels even after completing the upgrade. The main problem is that Florida bases environmental policy on the interests of farmers.
South of Lake Okeechobee is the Everglades Agricultural Area — about 700,000 acres of farms. If Florida protected the lake and the St. Lucie River watershed the way the state has protected the Everglades Agricultural Area, blue-green algae wouldn’t be closing beaches and hurting businesses. During emergencies, the Corps could release much more water to the south.
Yet Mark Perry, director of the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart, noted in an op-ed for TC Palm Newspapers that “water releases south from the lake stopped in mid-November.” Farmers then sent more water east into conservation areas, raising levels dangerously high. “This happens because the Everglades Agricultural Area is allowed to have perfect drainage …” while other areas drown.
Audubon of Florida Executive Director Eric Draper agrees that the state has kept Everglades Agricultural Area fields as dry or wet as the farmers want them, and when. Audubon and others last year asked the South Florida Water Management District to exercise its option on nearly 47,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar that could hold lake water sent south.
The water district board, all of whose members Scott had appointed, rejected the idea, and the option lapsed. Draper recalled Tuesday that the main argument against the deal was that the district didn’t have a plan for the land.
Until 2020, however, the district can buy roughly 153,000 other acres from U.S. Sugar. In April, Audubon and other environmental groups asked the water district and the corps of engineers to plan a reservoir for that land as part of their Lake Okeechobee Watershed study.
On May 11, however, the water management district’s executive director, Peter Antonacci, blew them off. “Expanding the scope” of the study, Antonacci wrote back, would amount to “costly distraction and loss of time.” The district, Antonacci said, would focus on cleaning up water before it enters the lake.
Not surprisingly, that’s the governor’s approach. Scott has stacked the five water management district boards with unquestioning allies and told board members to pick directors Scott prefers. Last year, Scott’s people ran off the previous director and installed Antonacci, the governor’s former legal counsel who had no relevant experience or training for the director’s job.
As for Scott’s approach, this year the governor signed legislation that relaxes water-quality rules for areas north of Lake Okeechobee. Scott also opposed the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to issue stronger water-quality rules. He hasn’t pushed the Legislature to prioritize the environmental spending voters demanded when they passed Amendment One in 2014.
On June 10, U.S. Sugar Corp., made the latest of the company’s four $100,000 donations in the last two years to Scott’s political action committee, which continues to operate long after the governor’s re-election. Scott has not shown up in Martin County. That figures. The governor will accept U.S. Sugar’s check, but Martin residents whose canals are now green might not accept his answers.